Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Glorious Impossible: A Sermon for Christmas 2015

Have yourself a humid little Christmas, with mosquitoes …

It’s hard to believe that this is my third Christmas here at St. Luke’s. It’s been a joyful time with you all. But I’m still getting used to the idea of Santa making his rounds in south Louisiana wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

We’re not going to get a white Christmas. But the really important thing is why we are here in church in the first place. For tonight we join with Christians around the world to celebrate a message first proclaimed by angels over 2,000 years ago. It’s a message of “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10). For God has come into the world to defeat evil and rescue his people from sin and death.

And it’s how God did it that blows the mind. For Christmas says that the Lord of all creation, the One who made all that is, seen and unseen, has become one of us – a flesh-and-blood human being like you and me. And this Lord of all creation came among us, not in majesty and power, but as a helpless, vulnerable baby born in poverty to parents of no worldly consequence.

The God who created heaven and earth; the God who called Abraham and gave a child to Sarah; the God who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; the God who chose David as King of Israel; the God who pierced hearts, troubled consciences, and brought the powers-that-be to their knees through the words of prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah; the God who called a young girl named Mary to conceive and give birth to the Savior of the world - here He is, a crying, naked baby, completely dependent for the basic necessities of life on the providence of two merely human parents.

Heaven has come to earth in the person of a baby named Jesus.

The Infinite and Almighty God has become a finite, frail human being.

The Lord of all creation was created by a mother whom He created, and held by hands that He formed.

It makes no logical sense.

But that’s precisely the mystery of the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas.

God born into our world as a baby boy: that’s what author Madeleine L’Engle calls “The Glorious Impossible.” It’s glorious because it says that God loves us beyond all reason. God loves us so much that He stoops to embrace our condition, voluntarily giving up the advantages of divine power and privilege, assuming our humanity in its fullness in order to redeem it for eternity.

Impossible though it may seem, this is the Good News we proclaim at Christmas: that God came among us as one of us, not in wrath, but in vulnerable, tender love. God came, not to condemn, but to save. God became fully human to show us the path of humble service. God became fully human in Jesus so that we might share in God’s divine life.

We can’t explain it. We can’t fully understand it. And we can’t do anything to deserve it. It’s all a gift of God’s grace. It’s proof of just how much God loves us and that God is our Father and our friend. The only appropriate response is to rejoice, glorifying and praising God in the music and prayers of worship.

Since God has shared the fullness of our humanity in Jesus, all of our longings for wholeness and new life find their fulfillment in Him.

God knows that we long for a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends the busyness of our overbooked calendars and the seductive screens of our smartphones.

We long to be connected with a sense of wonder, awe, and mystery in the presence of the Holy.

We long to know that we are loved by Someone so much greater than the ups and downs of our daily lives.

We long for the reassurance that there is a Power at work in this world that can defeat the forces of darkness and destruction that so often make breaking news headlines.

We long to be set free from bondage to our sins and to be healed of the sorrows and losses that have wounded our hearts.

The good news is that God has responded to those longings by giving us the most precious of gifts - the gift of His only Son, the gift of His life and love made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This is a life lived in complete obedience to the Father. It’s a life given as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. It’s a life that has overcome death through resurrection. This is a life we receive every time we come to the altar and we hold out our hands, forming a cradle to receive anew this Body that was born and broken for us that we may live.

In the Incarnation and on the Cross, Jesus gave himself for us that we may give ourselves to one another. So when we take this gift of God’s life given to us in Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we are empowered to become little Christs. And we are commissioned to carry on the work of the Incarnation as the Church, the Body of Christ that worships, prays, and strives to restore all people to unity with God and each other.

And so Christmas is not just a celebration of something that happened 2,000 years ago when the Son of God “was made perfect Man of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 378). Christmas is also about all of us right here, right now. Christmas is a call from God to minister to the world in Jesus’ Name, taking the gift of God’s life and the salvation we have received in Jesus and sharing it with a world that is starving for the Good News.

That is the work of Christmas that begins with the birth of Jesus and continues every day of the year. And that work happens through people like you and me.

A friend shared a poem by Howard Thurman that puts it all together:


When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone,  
When the kings and princes are home,  
When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,  
To heal the broken,  
To feed the hungry, 
To release the prisoner,  
To rebuild the nations,  
To bring peace among people,  
To make music from the heart.

My friends, may each of us respond to God’s call to do the work of Christmas by sharing God’s love and our blessings with the needy, the poor, and the hurting that they, too, may know the good news of great joy.

And may the joy and peace of this holy season strengthen and equip you for the holy work of Christmas throughout the coming New Year.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Waiting for the Light: A Sermon for Advent 2C 2015

Advent 2C

It’s a remarkable time of the year. And I’m not talking about the 70 degree weather for December or the aggressive mosquitoes that simply won’t take the winter off. I’m talking about where we are in the church calendar.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. And Advent is rich and complex. Like the shifting colors and patterns in a kaleidoscope, there are so many themes woven into this short season, like:

Waiting.

Expectation.

Wonder.

Anticipation.

Longing.

Coming.

Dawning.

Birth.

Judgment.

Repentance.

Joy.

Arrival.

Ending.

Beginning.

Presence.

Preparation.

Fulfillment.

The list could go on and on.

In the midst of that tapestry of Advent themes, we prepare for the coming of the Christ. We prepare for the Christ who comes as a baby lying in a manger, the Christ who comes through the Word and Sacraments of the Church, the Christ who comes among us in sometimes surprising persons (particularly the poor and the needy), and the Christ who will come again to fulfill God’s will for all of creation.

But the fulfillment hasn’t happened. And we haven’t arrived at Christmas. The child hasn’t been born. It’s not time to celebrate. And the healing, restorative judgment of Jesus Christ has yet to set all things right. We still live in a broken world filled with pain and suffering.

Advent doesn’t try to make it all better or pretend that everything is ok just as it is. Instead, Advent leaves us right there in the midst of it all, living as we do between the first and the second coming of Christ.

Little wonder that even before Thanksgiving Day our culture starts putting the petal to the metal in full pursuit of festivity. It’s so much easier to gear into holiday party mode than it is to sit still in the darkness of uncertainty, filled with the longings and the unfulfilled hopes of Advent. Many of us find it hard to sit still like that, or to take time for quiet reflection and self-examination. It can be hard to wait patiently in the darkness for the light of the celebration to come in God’s appointed time.

That may be the deepest challenge of Advent. For it reminds us that we are not in control. We don’t call the shots. The party doesn’t begin when we want it to. God’s plan unfolds in God’s way and in God’s time, not ours.

When many of us would rather move on to the baby Jesus, Advent insists that we must first deal with the wild and fiery John the Baptist. We meet him in today’s Gospel lesson “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” to the Israelites who have strayed from God’s ways (Luke 3:3). And by putting John the Baptist front and center during the season of Advent, the Church insists that we, too, must do the work of repentance, We, too, must “forsake our sins” if we are to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,” the one who comes to judge, to heal, and to make all things new (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 211).

Repentance may not be the word that comes most readily to our minds during the holiday season. But it is the word that best captures what the gospel says our Advent time of preparation should be all about.

The verb “to repent” literally means to return or turn back. In the Old Testament, repentance means "both a personal turning away from sin and Israel’s corporate turning away from idolatry" [Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (Westminster John Knox Press 2004), p. 314]. Repentance often has connotations of return from exile, which echoes the powerful story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.

So from a biblical perspective, repentance carries positive connotations. It’s all about forsaking idolatry and embracing liberation, freedom, and homecoming.

Repentance is a three-fold action.

First, we honestly face the reality of our lives, acknowledging where and how we’ve missed the mark of God’s holiness by falling into sin.

We then confess our sins. We acknowledge that our sins separate us from the path of life and cast us into a state of spiritual exile. And we admit that we are powerless to change ourselves.

And finally, we return to God, acknowledging that only God can free us from whatever binds us. And we accept his forgiveness and his grace to amend our lives.

Repentance is a life-affirming practice and a lifelong process. It’s about transformation. It’s about coming home. It’s about returning again and again to where we truly belong, to where we are known and loved and cared for by God.

As we practice repentance, we see that just as John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets confronted the Israelites, Advent confronts us to forsake the sin of idolatry.

An idol is anything that takes the place of God in our lives, anything other than God that we rely upon for happiness and security. An idol can be a material object, like a house or money. It can be a person, like a spouse, a teacher, or a leader. It can be a career. Anything that takes the place of God in our lives by promising a happiness and security it simply cannot deliver - that’s an idol.

Just as we clear out space in our homes to put up decorations, we have to clear out space in our hearts to make room for Christ, space often occupied by the idols we substitute for God. And yet, we long for freedom from our sin. We long to know the life that only the Lord of life can give us.

Tapping into our longing for freedom and new life, Advent proclaims the twilight of all idols. The sun is setting on everything we substitute for God’s love and justice. During Advent, darkness envelops everything we thought we knew about ourselves and about God. For something new and unexpected, and something so wonderful mere words cannot describe it, beckons on the horizon of the future.

It’s the promise that the dawn from on high shall break upon us, shining on everyone who dwells in darkness and the shadow of death, filling the world with the life-giving warmth of God’s forgiveness and love, and guiding our feet into the way of peace. It’s the promise that God will dwell among us and that we shall be his people. It’s the promise that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

But in the meantime, as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, we wait. We wait for the final liberation of all things from bondage to death and decay and the inauguration of a new creation. We wait for the light of Christ to come and fill the world with glorious splendor. And we prepare to joyfully receive that light by repenting of the sins that bind us to the darkness so that we may live as children of light.

It’s this waiting for the fulfillment that only God can give that makes observing Advent so challenging. We long for God’s light and new life, and we want it now. It’s so tempting to jump the gun by substituting our own fabricated festivals for the true Nativity of our Lord.

We need patience. We need restraint. We need to trust God.

Christ is coming. But Christ won’t come when we tell him to. The celebration won’t start just because we’re ready to get on with it.

But if we do the work of repentance, if we forsake our sins and the idols that displace God from the center of our lives, and if we ask for God’s help to exercise patience and restraint, then when the light finally shines in the darkness it will truly be the birth of new life and the dawning of new hope. For Christ will be born anew in our hearts, dispelling the darkness of our fears, healing the wounds inflicted by loss and grief, reassuring us that God lives in and among us as our Father and our friend, and casting aside any shadow of doubt that we are destined for the joys of eternal life in a new creation with those we love but see no longer.

And that is worth waiting for.